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The cathedral on the water

Embracing the silence at Doubtful Sound

by Thor Iverson

Wake in heavenly peace

All is dark. The sky is an unbroken shroud of blackness into which the invisible outlines of mountains seamlessly melt. A few street lamps surround themselves with enveloping spheres of light, but otherwise the deep night remains unbroken.

All is silent. A lone truck Dopplers by, lit only by the flashes of isolated lamps, and in its wake a perfect stillness returns to the night.

All is anticipation. The weather is uncertain, the journey long, the destination unexplored.

It’s five a.m. We lock the door behind us, and disappear into the night.

Put me in coach

At half past six, the first blue-grey traceries of a gloomy morning cast Queenstown’s Steamer Wharf into chilly silhouette. We’re assembled amongst other early-risers at the Real Journeys office at one end of the usually bustling town, which this morning is still and quiet except for the rumbling and wheezing awakenings of coaches…like the one we’re about to board. It’s shaped like a wedge and done up in the company colors, with seats that ascend toward the rear of the bus along tall, clear windows, and an amusing rear exhaust grate with dozens of kiwi-shaped holes. Employees, themselves still working through their first few cups of degrogging coffee, assure us that the forecast is as opaque as it was the other three times we’ve dropped by to ask (which is as close to passive-aggressivity as a Kiwi will ever get). There’s nothing to do but board the coach.

The seats are comfortable enough for a long ride, and our part-Maori driver Paul – an affably friendly man who nevertheless tends to both ramble and pause at the oddest mid-ramble times – introduces us to the journey we’re about to undertake, giving us both the mythological and geographic history of our path and its destination. The road south of Queenstown is as rainy and gloomy as it is twisty, though the perilous turns along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu seem less stomach-churning in a large vehicle (that said, I wouldn’t want to be traveling in the other direction with our bus in speedy approach).

We stop in Mossburn – desolate except for one dimly-lit convenience store/café, clearly only open to serve the biological needs of passing coaches full of tourists – for a bathroom and sustenance break, and we begin to identify our problem fellow travelers; those who linger a bit too long, those who make the purchase of a bottle of water an inexplicable drama, those who ignore instructions to re-board the bus. Our ten-minute break becomes twenty.

Low-hanging clouds drizzle and spit sheets of rain for another hour. But then, just as we’re pulling into the haphazard hamlet of Manapouri, the clouds lift and brighten. While they continue to obscure the surrounding mountains, they no longer release more than brief bursts of precipitation. “Well,” I say to Theresa, “if we can’t see anything, at least we won’t get wet doing it.”

[low clouds on Lake Manapouri]

Swing low, sweet cumulus
[mountains on Lake Manapouri]

The sun emerges

Real Journeys has another facility here, on the shores of Lake Manapouri, and it’s already abuzz with people delivered by coaches not unduly delayed by the dizzying wonders of Mossburn’s roadside cafés, who fill the warm interior seats of a surprisingly small boat and leave the stragglers from our coach to fill in the edges. We shrug and ascend to the top, bundling ourselves tight against the biting and misty morning air. Chugging away from the dock, our lake-crossing ferry makes slow and cold progress through a nearly-invisible inlet, emerging into the lake’s wider middle just as the clouds lift a little bit more. Now we can see halfway up the mountains (though we have to make frequent visits to our ship’s heated interior to survive the view). It’s as if we’re traveling through the lower half of an unfinished painting, with nary a revealing tease of the artist’s loftier intentions.

However, by the time we get to West Arm, the lake’s western terminus and the home to a rather jarring forest of electrical towers, the weather is looking decidedly better. Everything is brighter, warmer, more inviting, and the views now include the occasional glimpse at a towering mountain peak. We board another coach – still driven by Paul – and head up the shockingly non-precarious dirt road known as the Wilmot Pass. Impossibly steep mountains, heavily forested before rising further into waterfall-necklaced outcroppings and pearl-white tongues of snow, surround us in the distance, while mosses and ferns of every description form a lush embankment along scraped roadside walls. At the peak of the road, we disembark for pictures, and everyone soon crowds towards one particular sight. The moss-encrusted skeleton of a tree points towards the jagged blue line of a distant body of water far, far below us. It’s a picture we’ve seen so many times before – in guidebooks, on the web, on others’ travelogues – that it could easily be anticlimactic were it not for its shocking visual drama. But at long last, we’re finally here: Doubtful Sound.

[West Arm]

West Arm
[Wilmot Pass trees]

Overdevelopment has ruined these hillsides

Exhausted kiwis
[Wilmot Pass waterfall]

See? Overdeveloped!

Not-so-randy moss
[Doubtful Sound]

The view

Fiord perfect

Deep Cove has a name, but as far as we can see it is merely a dock and a turnaround for buses and Department of Conservation vans at the meeting of the Wilmot Pass and the eastern tip of the water. And yet, as the gateway to the only fiord (aside from much-visited Milford Sound) that can be easily accessed by anything other than private charter or multi-day hike, its name is known to travelers all out of proportion to its actual physical presence or significance. We leave our coach and board a surprisingly compact vessel, immediately commandeering the top of a storage container so as to quickly devour a picnic lunch. The thought of losing any part of this adventure to leisurely munching is almost abhorrent.

[sun rays]

Prismatic magic
[cliff wall]

Perhaps not skiable
[Doubtful Sound wall]

A Sound wall
[sailboat on Doubtful Sound]

Sound sailing

Chard Farm 2003 Pinot Noir “River Run” (Central Otago) – Blended and pleasant red fruit with hints of black cherry and plum, light- to medium-bodied, short and fairly innocuous. Fine, I guess, and while there’s nothing wrong with it…


Cliff moss (Randy’s long-lost brother)
[Doubtful Sound]

A Doubtful turn
[Doubtful Sound]

Ravine lunatic

Crisscrossed (in da house)

Our ship pulls away from the dock just as we’re packing up the remnants of our repast, leaving us over three hours of uninterrupted sightseeing. Those three hours will be among the most moving of our lives, leaving an indelible imprint of memory and emotion that only the living power of the untamed world can provide. Theresa calls fiords “temples of nature.” I’d opt for “cathedrals” instead, for the majesty and grandeur here dwarf even the most mighty attempts of man to sculpt and build the epic. But if the hand of man is not up to the imitative task, the written word is almost as powerless. It’s not just that after-the-fact descriptions of such beauty sound hollow and cliché, it’s that the active experience itself suppresses the mere desire for human language. For much of the journey, we and our companions remain remarkably quiet, speaking only when necessary to point out some especially dramatic feature. A fiord of this magnitude can be absorbed, but it may not be able to be shared in any meaningful way.

[Doubtful Sound][Crooked Arm]
[Doubtful Sound][Doubtful Sound]

And so, we stand, sit and walk. We take photos, stand and look, hold hands, separate and reconnect. Playful dolphins and lazy sea lions surround our ship, then retreat. We pass over increasingly rough waters abreast the rocky hazards that guard the exit to the Tasman Sea, churning and rolling in the powerful oceanic tumult, then turn back and explore the inlets and coves missed on our direct outward voyage. A myriad of waterfalls send forceful cascades and gentle mists down from inconceivable heights, and trees cling to vertical cliff walls that plunge without interruption into the icy depths of the fiord. Theresa moves from smiling bliss to contemplative study to overawed wonder, each expression parallel in my own. And, soon after our departure from Deep Cove, the sun emerges from atop the last gale-dispersed wisp of lingering cloud. A beautiful day, in every possible sense of the word.

[mossy waterfall][Theresa awed]

But the best – the most absolutely unforgettable – moment of the trip takes place in some remote bend of Crooked Arm, a “tributary” of the main fiord. We nudge close to a sheer rock wall; a thousand meters of pure vertical firmament above, still and impenetrable liquid blackness below, and all else a green and grey stillness. Sun glints from a billion sparkling shards of water that melt into the deep blue sky and sprinkle down upon us from a curtain of waterfalls directly overhead. And then…the skipper cuts the engines. We stand in pure, perfect, endless peace, enveloped by the gently transcendent and perpetual murmur of nature; mouthing a silent prayer in the cathedral. It moves me to tears.

[under the waterfall][Doubtful Sound]
[NZ Ensign & departing ship][farewell to Doubtful Sound]

“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!”

Still numbed by the overwhelming nature of what we’ve lived these past few hours, we re-board our coach and strike back across the Wilmot Pass, stopping to notice some immense tunnels in the approaching rock wall from which issue gentle streams that feed into the fiord behind us. On the other side, we explore the source.

Deep into the rock, a dank tunnel of dubious structural integrity spirals downward, descending and descending and descending until it comes to a partially-lit gate. Our bus disgorges its passengers, the claustrophobic (among which may, unfortunately, be counted my wife) already in a high state of agitation, and roars off to some impossible feat of 21-point reversal in the narrow confines of the tunnel. We, meanwhile, enter a brightly-lit cavern filled with powerful, yet eerily quiet, machinery. This is the Manapouri Power Station, a massive and audacious hydroelectric undertaking designed primarily to power the massive aluminum smelter in faraway Bluff, and one of the most careful balances between the needs of civilization and the needs of the environment ever constructed. It’s a remarkable achievement that nevertheless looks uncannily like the lair of some megalomaniacal James Bond villain, reducing the individual visitor to the proportional size of an aphid. But it’s an achievement that is, unfortunately, somewhat lost on my wife, who looks considerably less happy than she did a few hours ago (though much later, in a more expansive setting, she will admit that the facility is impressive).


I wonder if Gollum lives down here?
[Power Station map]

We drove down that?!?

Stalactites (searching for their soulagmites?)
[Manapouri Power Station]

Robert Palmer, Andy & John Taylor, Tony Thompson

Thankfully, we don’t stay long, and are soon back at West Arm and aboard a lake-crossing vessel. The temperature is a good ten degrees colder than on Doubtful Sound, and only three of us – myself and a hardy Danish couple – are able to brave the cold exterior winds for more than a few minutes. But the views are well worth it; untamed glacial lakes like Manapouri are not that visually different from fiords, and the scenery is scarcely less breathtaking.

[Lake Manapouri]

Chilly Lake Manapouri

A farewell to Fiordland

Paul – still our driver, and what a long day he must be having – puts the proverbial pedal to the proverbial metal on the other side, and we speed towards Queenstown at a rather frightening pace. We stop and disgorge at the Frankton Bus Station on the extreme outskirts of town, and take a taxi to our doorstep; a process that could have been explained a bit better when we purchased the tickets, but after such a marvelous day is really a rather minor inconvenience. And to be fair, the entire day has been yet another example of the seamless integration that exemplifies so much New Zealand tourism: busloads of multi-lingual visitors from multiple points of local origin, assembled and guided through four types of transportation and multiple opportunities for disaster to a place of incredible remoteness with ease and efficiency. Tomorrow, we’ll have the opportunity to amplify this lesson.

Bambi & the peacock

Long journeys mean hearty appetites, and back at our vacation rental, I assemble an admittedly bizarre cross-cultural mishmash of ingredients: piri-piri-rubbed venison burgers on pesto/cheese rolls with fresh cilantro and a lime/cilantro/chile “mayo,” and piles of herb-and-olive oil-infused roasted bell peppers on the side. Goofy in conception or not, it’s delicious. The remainder of lunch’s Chard Farm 2003 Pinot Noir “River Run” is just OK as a companion – again, the general indifference of the wine comes to the fore – but a backup wine doesn’t perform much better as a match for this particular food.

Peacock Ridge 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec/Merlot/Cabernet Franc (Waiheke Island) – I wouldn’t normally open a wine of this composition with such aggressive food, but another pinot – pretty much the only other kind of red I have on hand that’s not intended to be carried back home – seems pointless. As with my previous bottle from this winery, things are very tightly-wound at first. And yet, even through the surliness, one can see the inherently high quality: the wine is classically Bordelais (though on the riper side of that paradigm) while still being unmistakably not of Bordeaux, showing dried cassis, blackberry, tobacco and cedar with a firm, tannic structure. The only differentiator aside from the ripeness – and it’s a mild and possibly inconsequential one – is a coffee/espresso dust note on the palate. Anyway, it’s hardly open for business – more like curious bystanding and gawking – so I recork it and leave it at room temperature, to be reexamined another day.

It is once again dark (though hardly silent, as the festive Queenstown nightlife roars into gear somewhere in the distance), and though our “home” is comforting, it is alien and artificial at the same time. I close my ears to the world, close my eyes to the darkness, and am instantly transported back to innumerable stops along our magnificent voyage, resting finally in that one perfect moment of silence. Back to the cathedral. For if the story is right and God has nine billion names, I now know one of them: Doubtful Sound.

I open my eyes. No stars are disappearing. Reassured, I fall quickly…and blissfully…asleep.

Disclosure: Peacock Ridge is a free sample provided by the winery.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.